There's nothing like gastric distress to ruin a girl's birthday weekend in the big smoke, but before things went bad we did at least get a few proper dinners in. Chief among them was Kitchen W8, Philip Howard's relatively new venture just off Kensington High Street. Howard has two Michelin stars at The Square, has faithfully cooked at Nigel Haworth's Northcote food festival every year since it began, and has talked openly about overcoming his addictions to drugs and booze, which has nothing to do with anything but makes me suspect that he's a good egg.
He's not on the hobs at Kitchen W8 – head chef is his former sous, Mark Kempson – but between them they've mustered enough humour and lateral chefly thinking to take the blander edges off a sleek, mushroom-coloured dining room. Dishes from The Square have been transferred and tweaked, and between them they've turned game into a hot dog, made a girly fish dish into something obscenely, satisfyingly luxurious, and upended the ubiquitous lemon tart so that creme fraiche, usually the accompaniment, becomes the star of the show.
If ever a dish was designed to catch the eyes of food geeks and restaurant critics, it's the starter of game consomme with bacon cream and a small game hot dog. It's like the protein in two services (suckling pig and a sausage roll, p'raps) at Hibiscus: ignoring it would be unnatural. The hot dog, in a brioche bun with a seam of home-made brown sauce, was neither here nor there, but the mug of soup was like a wet, hot, immaculately clarified country house. It tasted of leather, cigars, mahogany and tweed, and the bacon cream benefited hugely from being proper cream rather than wishy foam. A little arrangement of 'thinly sliced' smoked eel with grilled mackerel really had been through the mandolin. The paper-thin approach makes for effective flavour delivery, but the slices were slightly weighed down by hefty chunks of yellow beetroot, some of which retained too much rootiness.
Howard seems to like putting cheese in odd places (see the passion fruit and lime mess with Brillat-Savarin cream), and halibut with a Beaufort crust is a Square classic. Here, and I'm sure there, the crust is a fine, elegant affair the colour of pale gold, and the accompaniments, a sweep of cauliflower puree and buttery 'melted' onions, are brutally rich; on a plate of beiges and yellows, I missed greenery. Ox tongue with shallot puree and a foie gras baked potato reflected the incipient trend for posh spud stuffings, and reflected it well.
A visit to Lutyens a couple of weeks ago confirmed that while restaurants are still happy to serve chocolate fondants, they're reluctant to admit it. So while theirs, when it's on, is called hot chocolate cake, Kitchen W8's is known as a warm bitter chocolate pudding. It is extraordinarily good, but of more interest is the caramelised creme fraiche tart. Wobbly and sweetly farmyardy, the creme fraiche takes the place of a lemon tart filling, while the lemon curd, in a blob and an ice cream, is relegated to the sidelines. It's a quiet joke which works extremely well.
We were in and out for under ninety quid, especially sweet since we'd been at the River Café the night before, and, as is customary, paid the bill in a manner best described as half willing, half wincing. It's nice to know that, should you wish, it's cheaper to be cossetted in Kensington than mildly patronised in a barn in Hammersmith.